Technologies for students with dyslexia: Part 2 Writing
March 6, 2019
By Jemima Hutton
Psych4Schools Guest Blogger
This is the second of two blogs, the first related to reading, and this one to writing. Both use scenarios to help you consider ways to implement digital technologies in your classroom. I have specifically written this way in the hope that you will act, not just read with intention.
My previous blog also highlighted the following key points:
- Every student is different
- Trialing some sort of technology or strategy is always better than doing nothing
- Time spent now saves time later.
For a full recap, visit my first blog here.
For most dyslexics, reading can be a simple fix. Simply convert everything to audio and you’re good to go. There’s a lot of technology that can help us with reading. But writing? How can we get around being poor with words? What follows is a dyslexic’s blueprint to writing, using some key tech hacks.
So, I’ve been contacted by Psych4Schools to write this article and chaos erupts. I’m overwhelmed and can’t seem to organise my ideas. The first thing I do is open a mind-mapping program on my computer to ‘brain dump’ my thoughts (yes, that’s a technical term in the dyslexia space). My preferred option is Canva – simple drag and drop software equals less fiddling around, greater productivity and it is visually appealing. Do not underestimate the ‘pretty’ factor. This is very important for students with dyslexia and/or attention issues as colours and shapes can help us to maintain focus.
When it comes to mind mapping, most teachers forget the most crucial thing about their dyslexic students – we do not work well with words. When you think mind maps you probably think words, but my mind map for this article is 70% pictures, 30% words. Each idea contains no more than 3 words. This is why I love Canva, you can add as many graphics as you like, along with text when needed. I now go through each idea and colour code according to the paragraph I want to group it in and delete less relevant ideas. Finally, I give each colour a number and in so doing, order my paragraphs. I have now created a plan for my article that will keep me on task but not limit my ideas, which often occurs with a rigid dot point structure.
Next, I open OneNote and make sure that both speech to text and text to speech software is running. I either type myself or use speech to text to type. This really depends on how I’m feeling on the day – again, a personal preference thing. If I am having a good day and my mind is clear, I can usually type reasonably well. On other days (most days) there are simply too many words buzzing round my head, and I struggle to commit to full sentences, so I use speech to text.
With this software on, I start writing about whatever I feel passionate about at the time. This is hardly ever ‘the introduction’ or ‘first paragraph’. In fact, I actually write my entire piece out of sequence and re-order it at the end. This technique drove my mother (an English teacher) absolutely mad, but it is still the only way I can finish writing within a designated time frame. On a computer, it is very easy to jump around and edit my paragraphs and I am a lot faster (and neater!) typing than writing, so I would definitely recommend students learn to touch type. (See my recommendations for programs below.) I also run through each paragraph quickly with my text to speech program, enabling me to pick up a lot of grammatical errors as I find it easier to hear my punctuation rather than see it.
Finally, after re-sequencing my paragraphs, I run over it once more with text to speech, making sure everything flows grammar-wise. I then use Grammarly or Microsoft Office 365’s Editor to pick up things I might have missed, particularly spelling errors. Although Grammarly does a reasonable job at correction, I believe Editor is superior, mainly because it is a learning tool specifically designed for people with dyslexia. Not only does it give suggestions with synonyms beneath words or phrases, but it will read them aloud when right-clicked, and even offer pictorial definitions, making self-correction much easier.
Speech 2 text
Before sitting down to write this article, I decided to run a little experiment. For the first hour, I used only basic laptop functions (keyboard, spellcheck etc) to help me write, switching off all speech to text and text to speech functions. After a quick break, I allowed myself to write utilising assistive technologies. I tallied the number of words written after each hour session. The results? In hour one I managed to write 349 words, most of which, I have since erased or re-hashed. Without speaking out my ideas or hearing them back, I struggle to separate and organise my thoughts, resulting in an overwhelming blank page or sentences that are off topic or do not make grammatical sense. The second hour not only yielded over 900 words, but the quality was far higher, allowing me to actually use this work without too much correction.
Speech to text is a tool that can dramatically increase writing output from dyslexic students, and it is particularly useful in breaking the mental barrier of getting thoughts into words on a page. However, it is hugely underutilised for two main reasons: First, both students and teachers expect to reap the benefits immediately, not realising that like reading, using speech to text is very much a learned skill. We would not expect a child to learn to read in a couple of days. Nor should we expect them to fully grasp using speech to text after a similar trial period.
The second reason students shy away from this software is that they do not wish to stand out from their peers. Although we would all love to think our classrooms foster a culture that accepts diverse learning styles, the reality is that most students are still afraid of others making comments. Speech to text is definitely the least discrete tool of all, but it is probably the one with the greatest capacity to make a significant difference to these students.
Every Microsoft program (Word, OneNote, etc) contain speech to text and text to speech software. They are free and accessible (usually located in the quick access toolbar). If your student is an iPad or phone user, there are a variety of similar apps. My recommendation is to start out with the free app My Secretary – a simple dictation tool with reasonable accuracy to test out with the student and gain skill. If the student is benefitting from this speech to text program, perhaps invest in a more long-term app like Clarospeak, which is slightly more accurate but requires a paid subscription. Personally, as a Mac user, I like to dictate shorter pieces into Pages using the microphone icon on my keyboard and use My Secretary for longer essays, however suggestions are based on preference and it will be up to you and the student to determine which technologies work best for them.
Most of us are familiar with Einstein’s definition of insanity. Unfortunately, this was the approach I (and the education system) took when it came to learning. By Year 11 I was fed up. Turns out, rote learning and writing out notes over and over really wasn’t working for me, or for most students I knew. The difference was, I was the only ‘sane’ one to do something about it. At this point, I committed to stop writing notes. Not one word. When my teachers diligently presented their PowerPoints to the class, adding notes to the board, I watched my peers rummage for pens to furiously scribble down as much as they could, while I sat back and simply listened to my teacher. After just two lessons, I found myself in a position that I had never experienced before. I was actually keeping up. What’s more, I was asking questions, comprehending the answers and contributing far more to class discussions. Of course, at first, it was quite difficult to maintain concentration on what my teacher was saying, but this problem was far easier to fix, compared with my previous attempts at note taking which often resulted in half written, unreadable notes, with almost zero comprehension of content. So, what do I do instead?
Step 1: As soon as I sit down, rather than getting pens out of my pencil case I grab a fidget toy – something to keep my hands busy. (My go tos are playdough or the fidget cube). These silent ‘toys’ turn whatever I’m learning auditorily into a kinaesthetic task (my preferred learning style) without distracting my class mates. In the absence of a fidget toy, I really struggled to maintain my attention, so I struck a deal with my teachers that if I was not fiddling, I was not listening.
Step 2: Turn on the Voice memo app on my iphone and place it on the end of my desk. This way, I can listen to the whole lesson later on high speed and in a third of the time, almost like reading over revision notes, but delivered in a way I can comprehend.
Step 3: Whilst everyone else takes notes, I sit back and listen. The two main problems that dyslexics encounter with note taking is that there are too many things to focus on and we often have poor short-term memories. Trying to write notes, listen to additional information the teacher is saying and making sure that what is written on the board is the same as what is written on your page, is far too much for any student (or adult!) to handle. Moreover, having a weak short-term memory means we can only grab small chunks of what is on the board to copy onto paper, slowing our pace and overall comprehension of the content.
Step 4: Some students like myself, may like the security and practicality of having written notes to refer back to. In this case, there are two options; One, I can convince/bribe one of my friends to note share with me; or two, I can use the Microsoft Office Lens app on my iPhone to take a photo of the notes on the whiteboard and get the app to transfer them directly into my OneNote Notebook. The notes can then be read out to me using Microsoft Immersive Reader. Using technology to do this has the advantage of making me independent, so when my friend is absent, my learning is not disrupted. A lesser known fact about dyslexic students is that our executive functioning (that is, organisation, time orientation, etc) is often impacted. OneNote’s ability to add tags, means that students can easily prioritise homework deadlines and moreover, they can do so independently.
Microsoft Immersive Reader, Speechify, Microsoft Office Lens, Speak It, My Secretary, ClaroSpeak, Voice Memos, OneNote, YouTube, Khan Academy, Crash Course, Edrolo, Eddie Woo maths, Canva, Nessy Fingers Touch Typing, Grammarly, Microsoft Photo Editor, Audible, Vision Australia Audio Library, Voice memo app on my iphone.
Jemima Hutton is a diagnosed dyslexic student who recently gained entry into Medicine. In 2018 Jemima founded, Dyslexia Demystified, a social enterprise that allows her to share her knowledge of navigating the school system as a dyslexic with staff, students and parents world-wide. Jemima was the winner of the 2018 Unleashed Jumpstart Award.
Further practical classroom strategies
The word dyslexia means ‘poor with words’. The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as being characterised by difficulties with accurate and fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language. Secondary consequences include reduced reading experience, which can impede growth of vocabulary and general knowledge, leading to problems in reading comprehension. 
Psych4Schools offers more than a dozen resources to help support the varying needs of students with dyslexia. Some resources are for members only.
To gain understanding of the many learning disorders that impact 15% of Australian students, see the Psych4Schools ebooklet, Working with children with learning disabilities.
In the Member’s Area, Psych4Schools also has a package of resources for assisting students with learning difficulties.
If you are not a member it is easy to join today. Click here to Join Now.
We welcome comments and suggestions of resources and strategies that help to support students with learning difficulties and disorders in your classroom.
Psych4Schools Psychologist/Guidance Officer
 The International Dyslexia Association. 2002. ‘What is dyslexia?’ http://www.interdys.org/FAQWhatIs.htm